Nathan Outlaw, Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Marina Villa Hotel, Fowey

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st September 2008

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Nathan Outlaw, Head Chef, Restaurant Nathan Outlaw at Marina Villa Hotel

The Staff Canteen is delighted to talk with Nathan Outlaw. One of the UK's most talented and rising culinary stars, Nathan has had extraordinary success having gained not one but three Michelin stars in three different operations. Nathan, currently Head Chef at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw at Marina Villa Hotel in picturesque Fowey, he was awarded a rising second in the 2008 Michelin Guide. He is developing his own style of using the "Less Fashionable" items and really y is a name to watch.

So Nathan, what made you decide you wanted to become a chef?

Well, I've always wanted to be a chef really. Since I was eight years old and watching my Dad cooking.

So, he was a chef? Yeah, yeah - he was a chef. Is he still a chef now?

Yes, he's still a chef. He works for the Catering giant - Sodexho. So I've always really been in the kitchen. I think the first time I was ever in a kitchen I was about 4 weeks old and my mum got a bollocking for warming my bottle in a Bain Marie (Laughter) so she got an earfull from the chef that my Dad was working for at the time. So I have always been in and around the kitchen, so I didn't even think of anything else as a career.

And how did you become a chef? Did you go to college? Did you do an apprenticeship? What route did you take?

Well, originally I did a lot of work experience with my father because he wanted to see whether I could with stand the hours and things like that before he sent me off to college. And then he said, I think it was about six weeks before I was enrolling in college he said if I can last working with him for six weeks then he would send me to college. I then went to college in Broadstairs, Kent and did a two year stint.

Isn't that the home of Gary Rhodes? Isn't he from around that part of the world?

Yeah, Gary Rhodes is from Gillingham and I'm from about 5 miles away.

Right OK.

Yeah, he went to the same college but about 20 years before me, I think.

Is there something in the water down there?

Yeah. (Laughter) I think David Nicholls went there as well. Oh, OK. I think there are quite a few chefs that have come out of there. I don't think it's so much of a big college now as it was. I think Westminster and Birmingham take more of the credit but in its day it was quite a good college.

So you did NVQ then, did you?

Yes.

Of course you're young aren't you - Christ, yes!

It was actually the transition stage with the 706/1 and the lecturers didn't really know what they were doing. (Laughter)

And now, if you were going to encourage people to become chefs how would you suggest they do it? Go to college? Do an apprenticeship? How would you do it if you were to do it all over again?

I'd like to see some sort of careers advice at school with a day release system where people can see the industry first hand before they make a choice. This needs to be followed up with help finding a full time job after school, a job that will allow you to do a day release at college as well. Some sort of organisation that could put chefs on day release, I think is needed.

Yeap.

But do it properly, working with quality places. I think sometimes you can have a lot of passion but be put into a dead-end place on some apprenticeship and you lose all that passion instantly.

Yeap.

I mean, it would take a lot of decent hotels and restaurants to get together to create something - their own apprenticeship. I think the NVQ thing covers all the bases of classical cuisine but I do think they need to update themselves. Having an apprentice in my kitchen, I do see what he does and what he's been taught and I think it's a bit scary sometimes.

Yes, it's very much cooking by tick box.

Yes, from the college's point of view I think it's very important for them to get the students to get the funds. So you worry about the quality of what's going on. Is the passion for the job there?

OK, when you first started, was it your goal to have a Michelin star? Did you just want to be a chef? Did you have a goal as to where you wanted to be?

Well to be honest when I started cooking I didn't really know what a Michelin star was. I mean, I went up to London and worked at the Inter-Continental.

Where did you work - Le Soufflé?

No I didn't, I worked in the main kitchen. I wasn't good enough to work in the fine dining.

So was Dean Tracy there?

Yes, he was at the time.

Yeah, I know Dean.

Yes, I saw him recently actually.

Did you?

Yeah, I saw him at the Catey's last year. He's very good.

Oh yes, he's got the best job in London. He works for Lehman Brothers. He's now General Manager but he used to be Executive Chef and his office has one of the best views in London, overlooking Canary Wharf.

Yeah, yeah. Dean started about a year after I started there. So I didn't get much of a chance to work with him.

OK, you started in London. It's a big thing at the moment - is it important to work in London? Does someone have to go to London to become successful? Does it make you any better or any worse?

I think it's just down to you personally. What do you want to do? Where you want to get to in your career? And if you don't know where you want to be when you start of as a chef - I mean in terms of the end game, London is not a bad thing to do. If you are quite head strong, focused and you know what you want to do in your career, for example a Michelin star chef then I think you should concentrate on working in those type of restaurants and don't bother with the "I've got to do two years in this hotel and that hotel."

Yeap.

I think you should travel. I mean if I was to do it again now, I would have done it differently. I wouldn't have done the London thing I would have probably gone to America. Probably got a job in the French Laundry or somewhere like that. That's what I would have done.

 Yeap.

But I mean at that point in my career I didn't know what a Michelin star was so the best thing for me to do was get into London and get some experience not only in cooking but in life as well. Mature as a person as well as a chef. The Michelin star thing didn't come along until City Rhodes.

Who was the Head Chef when you were at City Rhodes, was it Wayne?

Yeah, Wayne was there full time cooking and Roger Gorman was there as well. We were the opening team at City Rhodes. I was only there for two months. Another life experience - I walked out of the job because I thought I was hard-done by because of the split shifts, I had just come from a 5 star hotel where you were doing your 8 hours; you got your staff canteen food, you got all your laundry done - you were onto a good thing. You know, you go from that into a restaurant environment and you find that Gary Rhodes had all his guys from the Greenhouse and it was a hard team. And now I understand, but at the time I didn't. They really wanted to succeed and do really well, they were so committed and driven to reach the top and if you were coming in you needed to step into line and do really well and I don't think at that age I was really ready for that. So I walked out after two months and went back to the Inter-Continental for another eight months but in that time I had time to think about what I wanted to do and then a chance to meet with Eric Chavot came along; I went there and had a look at what he was doing and it was very, very exciting food and I got a chance to be at the start of it again with a new team and did that for six months "¦ and that was my defining moment really. I mean working side by side with Eric Chavot for six months and I mean actually side by side! - he was on the garnish and I was on the garnish.

Yeap. 

Yes, his favourite section in the kitchen is the garnish - he loved it. And to actually see someone like that cooking and getting your arse kicked constantly, day after day, six days a week. It makes you mature as a chef.

Yeap, it shapes you up. So what made you then come out of London? You came out and came down to Cornwall.

Yeap. Well I have always liked Cornwall. I came here as a kid, we came camping and the attraction was there. I was quite into surfing at the time - you wouldn't think it now with my physique!! (Laughter) but at the time I was. I had obviously seen Rick Stein on the television "¦ I had done modern British with Gary Rhodes and I had done modern French with Eric Chavot and the 5 star hotel with room service and banqueting.

Yeap.

And I thought, well, I'm very interested in fish so I sort of Niche myself because I wanted to do fish so I went to Rick Stein I did 18 months there- half of the time cooking on starters and mains and half the time preping and I have never seen so much fish in my life - now my fish prep skills are something that I'm quite proud of. And what we do now at the restaurant is all about what we do with the main ingredients; the preparation is more important that the actual finishing. Some chefs look at it differently and look at the end result but I am the reverse to that I'm looking at the product and how we prep it and that's why, I think, we've had the success.

OK. Fair comment. So obviously you've worked for some great chefs. Rick Stein, John Campbell, Gary Rhodes, Chavot but who do you think has been the biggest inspiration, to date, in your career? I mean all these guys are good to work for.

Umm, all of them have played a part but ultimately my dad is my main inspiration.

Yeap, fair comment.

As a chef, I am very fortunate, I mean there are other chefs out there who have fathers as chefs and cooks but to actually be there from such a young age and see someone be so passionate about what they are doing and taking so much pride in their work. He's actually got quite an ego about it as well; I mean he is always saying "I am a chef not a cook, a chef!!" In my early career I always wanted to impress him. I wanted to impress my Dad. I think he is impressed with me now and I'm just showing other people what I can do. I come from an area in Kent where it's not the done thing for a boy to cook food "¦ I mean when I told my mates that I wanted to be a chef they sort of called me a poofter and all that sort of stuff. Now look at me - they can kiss my arse!! (Laughter).

So the Black Pig was that your first venture as a Head Chef? And you also had some sort of financial interest in it as well, didn't you?

Yes, a quarter of it was mine. I'd been at the Vineyard; I'd worked for John for two years at Lords of the Manor and it was obviously a very important part of his career, I think that bit gave him the opportunity to get the job at the Vineyard and he's now got his two stars - he's done very very well for himself. When we went to the Vineyard we knew it was going to take a lot to get going. The carnage that was left needed to be sorted out, so John bought me in. He knew I could run the kitchen for him and he could utilise his time more to sort things outside of the kitchen. So I did that for a year and then my wife fell pregnant and we decided we wanted to come back to Cornwall. I put the feelers out for jobs and my wife's family said "Look we've got a bit of money "¦ would you like to do a joint venture in a restaurant?" I mean at that time my son wasn't born but when the restaurant opened he was actually born two weeks later - it was quite a tough time! However we thought if I was going to do it then I had to get on and do it! I was 24 at the time, which was pretty young but I got on with it.

You'd worked at some good places prior to that, though?

Yes, but I'd got frustrated. I mean the Vineyard, I always look at it that there is a standard to be maintained and it was John's standard and that it was my job to maintain it but I always had niggles in the back of my mind "I would have done it this way or I would have done it like that". So I thought instead of getting frustrated about it I'll just do it myself. So I went off and opened the Black Pig.

Fantastic! And you got a star there. And didn't you get one at your next place St Ervan Manor?

Yes. In Cornwall, it's seasonal and business is up and down. When it comes to the winter, I was talking to one of the customers last night, they were saying "Your style is very different from what you usually get in a starred restaurant" and I think the only explanation for this is that I've been forced to do it this way because of the costs. For example I couldn't afford luxuries, it's not so much the way now but when I first opened the Black Pig my budget for the kitchen was 400 quid and 400 quid to do the restaurant up with.

So, what did you have? - a stick blender?

No, I nicked that!!! (Laughter). I borrowed a lot of equipment because I couldn't afford it! We didn't have plastic containers; we were cutting the bottoms off milk bottles to make containers.

Yeah, and using ice cream tubs.

Yeah, yeah and using the sweet tubs from the Newsagents next door. What's more I went in there to define the style of cooking. I had spent money on Turbot, Truffles and Foie Gras at the Vineyard. I couldn't do that anymore so I bought preserved things; did a lot more braised things; pickled stuff and that defined the way I cook now. I won't use Sea Bass. I will use Wreck Fish; I won't use Turbot I'll use Skate. But now I could actually turn back and start charging money for Turbot and things like that but I don't want to. I've been very successful with the so called "˜second choice' ingredients, as such, so why change? They are equally as good and they need that extra little bit of imagination and skill to use properly.

I agree.

So why change that formula and it's quite interesting, if you work in places where you have got lots and lots of money to spend you wouldn't know how to use those sorts of ingredients. . .

Absolutely.

 How to prep down a whole deer for example or a whole baby lamb, or whatever really. So not only does that benefit me, the food and our guests, but it benefits the guys who work in the kitchen day in day out with these products, learning all of the time. We all learn together.

Yes, and that's important.

And the Waiters. The waiting staff see it all too, how it's caught, how it's bought, how it's prepped, how it's cooked, what it tastes like. All these things are important ingredients in our success.

So how would you describe your food style now, Nathan?

I would say it's quite simple but not lazy, because there is a difference.

OK.

Yes, because it's the "Crushed Potato" verses the "Pureed Potato" sort of thing.

Yeap.

Someone, somewhere was too bloody lazy to mash that potato, weren't they?? (Laughter). Basically, that's how the crushed potato came around. Yes, the style is simple. It's local, we obviously use local produce where we can, I don't bang on about the local thing though but I think it's about 60% local stuff that we use. You know, if there is a good peach coming from Spain then I'm going to get that.

No, absolutely.

You know if there is a good tomato coming from in from France - I'm not worried about that.

So it's buying the best, if that happens to be local then you buy local?

Yes. I mean you can bang on about local stuff and seasonality all day, but I would say that everything is in season (somewhere in the world).

Very much so.

I think that is another reason why we have been so successful is that the accolades take note of that, I mean everything is in season and we stick rigidly to that. The menu evolves; it doesn't change week by week or month by month. It changes dish by dish, that way you can control it and remain consistent. To change a whole menu for me would be disastrous. We just couldn't do it. It's not possible.

Yeap.

Yes, the sort of style we do - it's obviously modern. We have got a lot of modern techniques. I mean we've got the Sous Vide; we've got the Espuma Gun; we've got the Plancha. We've got all these sorts of things, but we don't write it on the menus; it's not something that we do. We don't say oh "We're cooking eggs at 52 degrees today" or something like that.

Yeap.

It's a case of, that's what it is. The information all comes from the waiting staff. There are two things I did when I first started here with the waiting staff. Firstly they ate every dish so they knew what the food that they were serving tasted of and secondly they had notes for every dish and they were tested on them. And they still are tested on every dish. I mean it sounds like a schoolmaster but it works because there was an instance last night when, (we think they were two inspectors), the guest asked how the Skate was cooked. Now, looking at it you would think it was roasted in a pan and just sent out but it's actually roasted and taken off the cartilage and then put back together and the waitress answered that question straight to him and then he was very impressed by that. Put simply, it's knowing your product.

Yeap, fantastic. I suppose the front of house team need to be an extension of you and your team.

Yes, exactly.

Yeap, there is no point in you working away at the back and not having it carried out properly out the Front.

Yes, that's right. The menu descriptions are very simple; it's just a list of ingredients and not how they are cooked. All the technical information comes from the Front of House staff. I found that it actually encourages and forces them to actually talk to their customers and be confident with themselves. Interaction with the customer is very important; another way we achieved this was we actually took all the cutlery off the tables so that with every course they have to go to the tables to put the cutlery down, meaning that with every dish there is a subtle interaction with the guest.

A great idea!

And that has been very successful for us and that's something that I've been very aware of. In the past I haven't had as much responsibility in running the restaurant side of it as well. I mean I've been the Chef, I've been a joint owner of a business but I have always had a Front of House team to take care of the Front. Now I work very closely with our Restaurant Manager and those little extra things are what make it special.

Absolutely.

And it has showed because we have had numerous inspections over the past five years and this time they came straight in with a rising two here so they have seen the improvement in what we've been doing. One of the Inspectors has inspected us for the last five years; he will have seen the changes and progression.

Who's that Derek Bulmer?

Yes, he would have seen the improvement in what we are doing, not just with the food but the overall experience.

OK, who inspires you as a chef? Outside of your dad that is. You mentioned earlier the French Laundry, are they people that you admire?

Yes, I mean I took some trips in January, when we were off. We went to the French Laundry and Per Se in the same week and yes, they were very influential. The one thing I took away from it, I mean it's not so much taking an idea away about how to cook things but it's the simplicity of things. The way they did everything it's straight forward; honest and simple but incredibly accurate.

OK. There was no Bastardisation? 

No, it was very refined food, at the same time you could identify everything on the plate.

OK.

Whether you could cook it like that is another thing though!

Yeap. Do you think that America is on the up on the culinary front? Or do you think it's a very small pocket of quality places?

I found that everything we had over there was a far better standard than here. I mean, I went to McDonalds and the even the McDonalds was better.

Really?

Yeah, I went to Subway and

 Did you go large? (Laughter)

Yeah, I did actually. I always do large! (More laughter) It's cheaper; it's half the price.

But large is LARGE in America.

Yeah, we were trying things out when we were over there but it was the general standards and pride that they take in their food which was a pleasant surprise. I think that's more to do with the way you structure it and the tip system and it's just a completely different mind-set in our industry in that country.

Yeap.

I mean the attention to detail at the high end, in regard to the service at the French Laundry and Per Se was just immaculate. You can see why they are acclaimed restaurants. And why people around the world know about them.

Yeap.

But saying that, we also went to Noma in Copenhagen.

And....?

Now, out of the three meals we had, as we actually went to Hibiscus just before we flew out, I'd say Noma was the best meal I have ever had.

Really? Noma's tipped to do very well in the "Best Fifty Restaurants" isn't he?

Yes it was by far, I mean the French Laundry was good but this guy, if that wasn't three stars I'd eat my hat because it was just "¦ I mean it's the whole experience from walking through the door to seeing the way they do service; the food is just inspiring. I was blown away.

Yeap.

I mean, as chefs it's very rare that you do get blown away.

Yeah, because it's like a magician, you know how they do that!

Yeah, I mean it's an open kitchen; there are more chefs than there are waiters; the chefs actually wait on the tables.

Right.

Which again, from a training point of view it would be madness. You know, they are the compare of the event if you like, and trying to get that organised -it would be total madness!

Yeap.

And the Head Chef is there and he's coming out and talking; not talking to the point of showing off his medals and stuff like that. He is actually there for a purpose, he's explaining what he is doing; a little bit of banter and he's back off to the kitchen"¦ And he never loses sight of what the staff and his guests are doing. The whole place is beautiful! I mean Copenhagen is in general beautiful. So out of those trips, I'd say now about inspiring chefs I'd say Rene Redzepi, and Noma just purely because of what he was using. I want to go back there every week to see what he's doing. David Everitt Matthias, I am a big fan of him. At Le Champignon. "¦ when I worked at the Lords of the Manor I went there a lot.

Yeah, I suppose that you were almost neighbours. Yes, and obviously John Campbell.

Yes, all good people to look at. So, what about you? Where is Nathan Outlaw going? You've been awarded a rising two stars, what are you going to do?

Well, we are just concentrating on getting the restaurant right; improving it; developing it; I mean I can always see improvement that could be made on every dish that we send. We know that every service we do can be improved upon from the previous one. Ultimately, we'd like to go as far as we can, I mean if it's two stars it's two stars; if it's three stars, it's three.

Will more stars, bring more business for you, Nathan?

No, not in Cornwall. No, Cornwall is the sort of place that if people enjoy it they come, go home and come back again and that is why we keep it quite informal. The waiting staff are not stiff; they are not going to be looking over your shoulder all the time. The food, I don't think, is pretentious.

But don't you think there is a whole shift at the moment moving away from the very formal restaurant and it's becoming more informal because I think a lot of people wear suits all day and they are on show all day with their job, and when they go out for dinner the last thing they want to be is all dressed up; in a stuffy, pretentious room - they want to relax.

Yeap, I agree.

But they still want high standards but as a chef and restaurant you don't have to drop your standards just because they are not in a suit and want to relax a little.

Yes, it's all about standards. There is a very fine line between formal, out of control and informal.

Absolutely. You don't want guys in shorts and flipflops but "¦

No, no but if they are smart shorts I don't mind. But I think the days of wearing jackets into a restaurant are almost over. You see a lot of your institutions in London and around the country.

Yeah, but often people go to those places for that, don't they?

Yes and there will always be a niche for that. But the stuffiness of service, I mean I don't think there are so many good waiters around now anyway, and if there are, I don't think that they want to work in a pretentious place as well. So what you have to do is take people on who are not so much industry trained but have better life skills and a better personality -we try to take people more on personality than experience. I don't care if they have worked at a three Michelin starred restaurant; if they have got the right attitude and personality then they get a job.

That was my next question, if someone applies to you as the next chef what are you looking for? Just attitude, a good attitude.

Attitude.

Simple as that and a willingness to learn, listen and to want to progress as part of a team, we'll teach them the rest. To be honest I haven't had the luxury to employ chefs or waiters that have lots of experience.

Are all you guys local?

My apprentice is local and obviously Gordon, my Sous Chef has been with me for five years; he's from Scotland so he's not a local. Chris is from Burnley but he's worked at the Vineyard, Anthony's and the Black Pig where he worked with me, so he knows what we do. My Sous Chef and Pastry Chef are both here for the same reasons I'm here. I mean I am very fortunate to have that. My Restaurant Manager, she's here for the same reasons.She's doing her diploma in wines at the moment, that's another thing being a 36 cover restaurant we're never going to have the luxury of a Sommelier, and I don't want that sort of divide. We had that at the Vineyard, you had kitchen, restaurant and sommelier teams - it's bad enough with the kitchen and restaurant divide without having a third team to get involved. We work very well together. There is no animosity; I mean I'm not a shouter in the kitchen any way and we all get on very well, so I am always very aware of bringing the right people in. We are a team.

I'm always quite intimidated by Sommeliers.

Yeah.

Because I like wine but I'm not the greatest wine expert. I always look at a menu and think "Oh, my god what am I supposed to order with that and I always think he's gone back into the kitchen and said "Guess what that Muppet has ordered to go with "¦" (Laughter)

Yes, I feel the same. That's why I don't want a massive wine list. I mean, we've got quite a big one - about 170/180 bins but I wouldn't want it to go much bigger than that, I think it's just too intimidating. One you get this book put in front of you which is full of wines, which OK is very impressive if you have got time to read it but 10 minutes later someone is asking you to order from it.

Yes. "Hold on a minute" - it's like trying to read War and Peace. (Laughter)

So, yes it's all about making people comfortable. And people coming to Cornwall, generally, a good 90% come here to get away from it all; relax and enjoy themselves and it's not like the City. They are not rushing in and out in two hours. We don't turn the tables over, so generally, people just sit there and enjoy themselves and each other. It's very important that we work around that with regards to everything - the food; service; wine - we look at all aspects to make it more relaxed and enjoyable. And that is the most important thing - from the moment they walk in through the door. The whole place is quite a relaxed; chilled out place.

Yeap, I feel that too, but it also feels very professional and a lot of hard work obviously goes into making it such a pleasant, successful environment.

That is very much part of the success as well, I think it is relaxed and informal but we don't compromise our standards.

Last question for you - you have got one meal left to eat, what would it be?

What do I eat? Someone asked me this the other day actually.

Well, you ought to know the answer then!! (Laughter)

I still haven't come up with it yet!! Toad in the Hole.

Toad in the Hole?

Yeah, it's got to be hasn't it?

Onion gravy? (Laughter)

Yes, it has got to be with peas and carrots as well.

Fantastic.

And then dessert, I think I'd have "¦ um "¦Chocolate Profiteroles, or something! (More laughter)

Why not! I love Prawn Cocktail.

Yeah, I love Prawn Cocktail as well; there is nothing wrong with that.

Fantastic. Nathan, thank you very much.

No worries.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st September 2008

Nathan Outlaw, Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Marina Villa Hotel, Fowey

IN ASSOCIATION WITH